The Art of Compromise: Navigating Differences in Relationships

In a session the other day, a man that has been married for about a year was talking about his first serious challenge he and his wife have had as a married couple. He wants to move to a different city and travel more. She wants to settle where they are and start a family.

Amongst other things, he expressed a fear of doing what she wants now and then resenting her down the road. It's not like one of them is right and one is wrong. They are different people with different needs and they are in a relationship.

Situations like these can be very threatening and cause a lot of conflict, resentment and acting out.

It is easy in these situations to fall into the trap of trying to prove why what you want is better or more valid, which leads to attack-defend dynamics, which leads to both partners feeling unsupported.

Here's what I said to him:

  1. It's important for you both to continue to express yourselves. Even if it leads to fighting, withdrawing from each other is worse.
  2. Resentment is not an inevitable outcome if you continue to talk about it and make compromises. ​
  3. Compromise is a proactive result of expressing yourself, listening to her and exploring possible solutions.
  4. The goal is not to get each other wanting the same thing. It's okay to have differences. The goal is to create the space for both of you to be able to have your own feelings and needs as individuals and in the relationship.

​There's a quote by the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, that I have shared with a lot of the people I have worked with. It's about living the questions versus focusing on the answers.

It takes courage to live the questions.  It demands patience and living in the unknown. It can be scary to be in a position like this when it feels impossible to foresee a mutually beneficial solution. It will trigger defensive behavior and can make you feel unsure of yourself and each other. 

Marriage is impossible without compromise. Compromise is impossible without learning to express oneself and learning to hear each other. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ​- Rainer Maria Rilke

David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

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